During last year’s Jamhuri Day celebrations, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the “Big Four” pillars of his second and last term in office, among them affordable housing, consequently setting the stage for what is to become the country’s largest mass housing project since independence.
While the debate on affordable housing especially among property insiders has been mainly focused on the price of the houses, it seems lost on many that there are a lot of underlying issues to consider when it comes to housing.
And now experts in the housing sector are urging that the debate be escalated beyond affordability at the point of purchase to look at other aspects that are critical when it comes to housing.
Some of these issues include sustainability, functionality, safety and health issues, environmental factors, social and cultural issues, people's preference, among others. It is easy to assume that the government and its development partners has got all this figured out. But that will just be that: an assumption.
On their part, Kenya Green Building Society (KGBS), the Kenya chapter of the World Green Building Council, told DN2 they would like to see all housing developments and the neighbourhoods built to green building standards so as to achieve sustainability.
“What we would like the government to take seriously is the integration of green building principles into these affordable housing schemes. Why? We are talking about houses that have a life cycle so affordability doesn’t stop at the point of buying a house but instead expands to the occupancy life of a house,” Mr John Kilungi, the vice chairperson and head of advocacy committee at Kenya Green Building Society (KGBS), told DN2.
Adopting green building principles comes with two major benefits. First, green building encourages proper use of resources, bringing about resource efficiency.
On the other hand, such techniques have the capacity to generate resources for a neighbourhood when say, the waste generated there is segregated, recycled and the material sold. Such monies can be used to run the estate enabling occupants to bring down the service charge.
“These are some of the things that our current models of housing does not integrate and those are lost opportunities. This shouldn’t happen with future developments,” says Mr Kilungi.
Speaking on behalf of Interior Designers Association of Kenya (IDAK), Mr George Karani, an interior designer who doubles up as the IDAK president, said for interior designers, the biggest concern would be the general planning of the houses. He added that amenities and the floor space are also major issues.
“The developers are likely to reduce space so as to cut cost. However, in the long run if the spaces are too tiny, there is a risk that people will shun these houses as they become less practical,” says Mr Karani.
Some of the aspects IDAK holds close to heart and would want incorporated into the affordable housing include functionality. Mr Karani says is critical to examine whether a house can perform the functions required of a residential house.
The other two are the occupant’s safety and health requirements. He adds that in the long run, a house should improve the quality of life for the occupant.
“What is the function of a residential house?” he poses. “Do we have all the amenities needed to support it? And if yes, have they considered the safety and health aspects of the occupants?”
According to him, interior design is wide and is not limited to just making a space look beautiful. He says the problem with the way things are done in the country is that interior designers are contracted after the architect has made the drawings instead of the opposite.
“It is wrong to expect buyers to just fit into the space you allocate them, without paying attention to all the installations before allocating space,” says Mr Karani, adding that the biggest misconception on who should come first at the design stage of a space allocation continues to exit. Many still don’t know who, between the architect and interior designer should come first.
He regrets that interior designers were not consulted directly by the government during the design phases of the affordable housing project.
Mr Karani told DN2 that KGBS reached out to the organisation for advice but IDAK members who had been looped in pulled out after it became clear that they were being consulted as decorators and not interior designers. Karani clarifies that these are two different fields.
When asked whether KGBS has had a chance to look at the models being proposed for affordable housing, Mr Kalungi says, “I know there are two models, one of which KGBS took part in developing and is actually modelled to green building standards. The thing is we do not know which one will be adopted. We believe though, that we will be consulted before a final decision is finally arrived at.”
Green building is not a popular housing concept in the country and in most cases what people consider to be green buildings — towering structures with lots of glass — are not green buildings at all.
Locally, the widespread belief that green building is expensive has seen many developers steer clear of it in favour of conventional styles. However, they are mistaken.
Speaking to DN2 late last year, Mr Kevin Oduor, principal architect and CEO of Do Design Consultants (DDC Architects) said that the notion that green building is expensive is a fallacy.
“A well-designed green building can actually be cheaper to build than a conventional one. It all depends on design,” he said.
One of biggest misconceptions, Mr Oduor noted, is the belief that a green building encompasses a lot of technological devices and gadgets, which override the cost. However, a green building looks at environmental sustainability and efficiency in energy and cost.
Mr Kalungi asserts that it is possible to integrate green building principles in the affordable housing development while still keeping the cost down.
“What we are encouraging them is to look at these affordable housing delivery through a systems’ approach. This means that if you invest a certain amount of money in housing, you also put in place measures that can help in faster recovery of the investment,” offers Mr Kilungi.
Some of the measures that can be taken to help in payback, for instance, include solar powered energy systems that will see home buyers say goodbye to expensive power bills.
Instead of having the conventional sewerage infrastructure installed to serve families living in the affordable homes as suggested by the government, Mr Kilungi says the best bet would be to have a waste water recycling system that collects all the water released, recycles it for use in cleaning and landscaping.
This, he says, will not only make good use of the scarce commodity but will also make life much cheaper for occupants, considering that the incessant water supply problem is likely to become much bigger as more houses are built.
But you might wonder why it is important that we create sustainable communities when it comes to affordable housing, whose target is the low income earners.
According to Ms Patricia Wachira, a senior researcher at Cytonn Investment Ltd, when the government and other market players speak about affordable housing, they do so in reference to housing for the low-income and lower-middle population earning Sh50,000 and below per month.
She says this group account for more than 70 per cent of the formal sector. It therefore implies that for people in this income range, affordability does not stop at the point purchase but stretches throughout the life of the house.
In this case, Mr Kilungi says, it doesn’t make sense to buy a house which is affordable but then expensive to run.
He adds that fixed costs are as natural as taxes so much so that they cannot be escaped. “Since they are so obvious why don’t we reduce how much someone pays for them?”
With the water table said to be sinking deeper into the ground and as cities continue to experience water shortages, prompting residents to sink boreholes, the need to have a conversation on the environmental impact such a mass housing project is bound to have cannot be overemphasised.
“We need to understand that once we build in a particular area, we disturb the natural ecosystem. In other words, places where we had water percolating into the ground are replaced with hard surfaces that hinder this,” Mr Kilungi says. “As we build, we have to leave open spaces where water can seep into the ground and replenish the water table.”
Yet another environmental factor that has got to be at the heart of this conversation is the need to manage and minimise storm water runoff. This can be achieved through harvesting rain water and reusing it.
Noting that there is a direct correlation between garbage and human settlement, Mr Kilungi, whose membership-based organisation’s goal is to transform the built environment towards sustainability through setting the standards for green building and sustainable neighbourhoods, education and advocating for laws and policies meant to advance green building, says there is need to make sure that waste is properly and sustainably managed to avoid decaying the environment.
With regards social and cultural issues, it behoves communities living in the affordable housing villages to do so in a way that enhances social cohesion.
Having communal clean-up days and a set-aside day when people come together to trade in what they don’t need for what they need will go a long way in creating good relationships and thus improving the area’s social fabric, experts say.
Functionality and affordability should be part of green debate
Ms Patricia Wachira, a senior researcher at Cytton Investment Limited, defined affordable housing and explained what a house-hunter might have to forego.
When someone talks of “affordable house”, what exactly do they mean, technically?
An affordable house is one that does not cost one so much that they cannot afford to meet their other basic needs on a sustainable basis from their income. It is therefore relative and dependent on how much one earns.
Generally, though, when the government and other market players speak about affordable housing, it is in reference to housing for the low-income and lower-middle population earning Sh50,000 and below per month, who account for more than 70 per cent of the formal sector.
When it comes to making homes affordable, cost is key. So how do you go about reducing cost, what are the areas that someone is likely to tighten the noose in order to achieve affordable housing?
Construction cost, financing cost and land costs in that order. Construction costs including infrastructure account for 50-70 per cent of development costs. In order to achieve affordability, a developer has to look for ways to save on these costs. The options include;
Basic level of finishing e.g. use of red oxide floor finish instead of tiling.
Large-scale projects in order to achieve economies of scale.
Low-rise buildings to save on costs on structural works, and aspects such as a lift.
Small unit sizes in order to achieve more units on a piece of land.
Use of local building technology and materials to cut importation costs.
Use of pre-sales to finance projects, or sourcing for cheap debt (hard to get).
Alternative building technology such as EPS, which results in savings on time and labour costs.
Development on land in satellite towns where land prices are relatively low compared to areas near the CBD.
In that light, what are some of the things that a house-hunter looking for an affordable home might have to forego?
Size of the house. The proposed house sizes by the government range from 20sqm, 30sqm, 40sqm and 60sqm for studio units, 1-bed, 2-bed and 3-bed units, respectively while standard units in the mid-end market measure 30sqm, 50sqm, 80sqm and 110sqm for the studio, 1-bed, 2-bed and 3-bed units, respectively. Thus buyers will have to give up the comfort of a spacious house.
High quality finishing — To achieve affordability, developers are likely to resort to basic level of finishing. This gives buyers the option to upgrade their houses with time.
Buyers will have to forego lifestyle amenities such as swimming pools, laundry marts, and gyms which are found in most institutional grade developments in the mid to high-end market.
To achieve affordability, developers and the government has to undertake projects in out-of-town locations where land supply is high and at a relatively lower cost. One of the areas set aside is in Mavoko which is at least 30km from the CBD. This means buyers who work in Nairobi city and its environs will have a longer commute and probably, higher costs.
When it comes to affordable housing, is cost just about the only issue to consider? If not, what are the other issues at hand?
As highlighted, for developers, land, infrastructure and financing costs are key considerations.
For buyers, level of income, access to mortgages at affordable rates, and location preferences are key factors that need to be looked into.
There’s need to establish that indeed people want to buy (and not continue to rent) houses, and in which locations they would like to buy these houses, and within what timelines. This will ensure there's offtake for the proposed houses.